Professional game translation and localization is a lot of fun in a lot of ways. But like any other job it has its difficulties, like office politics, ineffective leadership, and conflicts between work issues and personal issues. Naturally, it can be very stressful and a lot can go wrong.
A Legends of Localization reader and fellow professional translator recently offered to share one of the earliest experiences in his career to illustrate what it’s sometimes like in the trenches of professional localization. He’s asked for anonymity, so let’s call him, I dunno, “Red Snake”.
How to Screw up a Translation: A Postmortem
By Red Snake
This postmortem is primarily for new translators or for people interested in becoming game translators. It is also is a bit different than most postmortems in that neither the game nor the people who worked on it will be mentioned by name. The people involved will know what the project is if they read this. The reason for this secrecy is the translation was basically a debacle. You know your game’s writing is good if nobody mentions it in the reviews; you know it’s great if they specifically discuss something they liked. And you know it’s just dreadful if the reviews complain about the writing. Unfortunately, the latter was the case here.
You suppose I could say I’m a bit embarrassed. However, what I do care about is helping other translators as well as enthusiasts to understand what the translation process is like so that we can learn from these mistakes. And that’s the purpose of a postmortem: to explain what went right and what went wrong so we can establish best practices.
The game in question is an RPG with approximately 7,600 Excel Spreadsheet cells’ worth of text. I was the main translator on the project, and a second translator was added about three and a half weeks into the project. The project was to be completed in four weeks. The spreadsheet was sent on March 29, but the final document was not submitted until June 5. The reasons for this delay can be attributed to major life changes in nearly all personnel involved, problems of communication, and skill level/experience.
What Went Right
1. Positive Energy
At the time, I was working as a contract translator for a large company in Tokyo. I had already done several small translations as a contractor for this company and had also translated several manga and articles on my own, so was eager to work on the next project. My boss sent me a message saying they needed someone to work on a difficult project and wondered if I would be up to it. He said it was huge – an RPG with something like 30,000 characters of text – and for a platform that’s kind of sexy to develop for. It had to be completed in about a month, but there wasn’t anyone else on staff who could take it. He said I would learn a heck of a lot from such a project. Of course, I said yes. One piece of advice I heard was that you never turn down an opportunity. Also, translating an RPG for a major platform is most translators’ dream, but moreover, I was eager to learn a lot. And I sure did!
This positive energy stayed with me throughout the project, even through its darkest days. I was eager to complete it and create a well-polished work that I would be proud of. Most importantly, I worked on the translation in nearly every available moment. The first thing when I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to work on the translation. You know you’ve got a job you thoroughly enjoy if you wake up in the morning and tell yourself, “I can’t wait to get to work today!” If you can get a job like that, stick to it!
Always stay positive about your work. Don’t fall into despair. Continue to tell yourself this project is something that is in your power to complete (even if you need outside help). If you’re in over your head, then remember you are pushing your limit and will grow positively from that.
2. Good Access to the Game
I’m located in the US, and the company I worked for is in Tokyo. They were able to send me a copy of the game really quickly (shipped April 9 by EMS), and I also had the appropriate platform to play it on, which is no small problem considering region encoding. The spreadsheet they sent also had tons of great pictures of all the equipment and characters. What’s more, there were official websites (in Japanese), a Wiki, and plenty of video walkthroughs of the game online, so I could easily skip from one section to another. Having a playable copy of the game is invaluable to a translator. There have been some projects I worked on where I didn’t get to see a copy of the game or even any gameplay footage, just a big spreadsheet. This makes it incredibly difficult to understand the context, as will be explained in the ‘What Went Wrong’ section. The only thing that I really could have used would have been a collection of save files or a debug code to make play easier, since I’m not very good at these kinds of games.
If at all possible, make sure you have access to the game you are translating. Context is key to everything. If you can also get videos and/or save files, then more power to you! If you have a copy of the game, the best thing to do is play it as much as possible during the first few days to get a sense of it. Also, immediately review the spreadsheet or whatever documents you receive so you can get an overall sense of the scope and content of the game. See what resources are available online, from fan pages, wikis, and walkthroughs. If you have video walkthroughs – and this is something I wish I had done during the project – watch all the videos and record timestamps so you know where important text appears.
3. Outside Assistance and Google Docs
During the fourth week of the project, it became clear that I wasn’t going to get a polished translation done in time since my skill level was not high enough. Thankfully, I had good relations with another translator, but they as yet had no game experience. They have a bit more Japanese skill than I do, and we were able to work out a 50/50 split of the commission after getting approval from the company. This meant the translation received an added energy boost where we could work together to double-check the translation and get it polished enough for approval. This was the proverbial cavalry come to the rescue, and we worked nonstop for three days getting it to a more or less presentable form. We kept constant contact during this period through e-mail and Skype. Thanks to the progress we demonstrated, the company also gave us a translation extension (although unfortunately, they did not specify how much of an extension).
Make sure you have someone else to collaborate with in case things go rough, particularly if you are inexperienced. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and make sure to clear it with your supervisor. Share your work with someone who has signed the NDA so you can get that valuable feedback.
4. Writing Tools
There were a lot of great tools available during the translation, some of which are obvious, but others that emerged from experience.
This may seem a no-brainer to most people, but I’ve taught enough college freshmen to know that a surprisingly large number of people don’t follow the obvious. For a translator – or rather, for any job that involves writing – you ALWAYS go back and check your work. This means not just making sure you don’t have any typos and there is clear readability and flow, but that you can go back and cross-check the Japanese text with the English to ensure what you wrote matches the text. Much to my embarrassment, I initially thought the first translation pass was all that was needed, and there was no reason to go back and check the original Japanese! Just polish up the English, and you’re good to go. Now, I proofread the hell out of everything I write, and if the English read well, then wasn’t that ok? WRONG!! Getting into the habit of going back and checking the source was incredibly useful, although obviously not enough, as the What Went Wrong section clearly illustrates.
If you’re using a spreadsheet, color-coding your translation cells is vitally important. Develop a system where you can identify when text has major issues, minor issues, or is good to go. Identify key terms that are repeated in multiple boxes so if you change the name in one place, you know exactly where it is everywhere else. Add a column where you can take translation notes, including copy/pasting links that provide context for localization issues (such as the name of a sword or mythical creature).
Another great tool was uploading the massive spreadsheet to Google Docs. Prior to this, I had been using Open Office, which is a great tool, but runs into compatibility issues with Excel and resource issues. At the time, I was using an older computer, and since the spreadsheet was so large (about 6MB with 18 tabs and 7,600 lines), it could take over a full minute just to save it! Moving the file to Google Docs not only allowed me to easily collaborate, but it also saved me an incredible amount of time. There is simply no excuse not to collaborate without a tool like Google Docs or to use a program that takes so long to save. Update or shift your software and technology to focus on what really matters: the translation.
Finally, the spreadsheet also defined how many English characters were allowed per line. I know some basics of typesetting as well, so know to avoid widows and orphans and other unseemly problems that can occur with text boxes. Adding functions to the spreadsheet allowed me to automatically highlight the spreadsheet cells to track if the text length went over. I also checked the cutscene script to ensure subtitles were easily readable (link). Having access to information about subtitles and typesetting rules is a huge help in ensuring your translation looks nice as well as reads nice.
5. Characterization and Poetry
There were a few characters in the game who had either a unique accent (Medieval Japanese, cute animal-themed talk, etc.), and there were also music, poetry, and riddles. These were particularly fun to translate since I could work with my friend to pitch ideas back and forth. With my friend helping out with the core translation and my literary background, the end result are some lines that I am quite proud of. It’s areas such as this where translation and localization are the most interesting because it really allows the translator to push his or her creativity to the limit and add a personal touch. When you can get a character’s ‘voice’ down to sound like an uncouth bandit, country bumpkin, rich aristocrat, or divine power, that is when your translation is at its finest because that character now has the breath of life.
Always look for opportunities to make each character unique in your work and to take advantage of the fun parts of the project. Identify those quirks and bring them to life. To me, that process and the end result is what makes translation worth it.
What Went Wrong
1. Communication Issues with the Company
The biggest problem that I encountered was lack of feedback from the translation company. I sent regular e-mails updating my progress and had sent samples of the work during the middle of the initial four-week period requesting feedback, thinking I could have the first translation pass finished by the end of Week 3 and then have the entire fourth week left to polish. Unfortunately, I did not hear back until very late in the project, when it became immediately clear that there were serious issues with the quality that simply polishing the English would not help. Worse, since I was working on the project on my own, I couldn’t show it to anyone with more experience in realtime to find out what sort of mistakes I was making and their extent. It soon became clear that although I could submit something by the deadline, it sure wouldn’t be publishable! Had I known sooner, I would have been able to recruit help from my friend a week or more earlier, and the project would have more than likely been completed on schedule.
What’s worse is towards the end of this period, my manager, who I had been working with for over six months, left the company for a new venture! I was not aware of this until late in the project, although within the first week, I had been introduced to who was supposed to be my primary contact. Unfortunately, I did not understand the situation, and this is probably the main reason I did not hear back much. I had never worked with my new supervisor before, and communication between us was not as regular as it should have been. I do not want to suggest that the problem was entirely on the company’s side, although management transition is certainly a major problem in any project.
The biggest lesson here is to maintain strong and regular communication. Make it exceptionally clear what sort of feedback you are looking for. If you don’t hear back in a reasonable time frame (say 24 hours), press for a response. Be clear exactly what you are looking for.
2. My Collaborator Went AWOL
After several days of hardcore translation help and pumping out a solid draft at the end of the fourth week, were able to get a much-needed extension to make the translation even better. We made steady progress for the following weeks, but then some problems occurred. First, my friend had to move, but didn’t tell me ahead of time. Then their laptop broke, but they were able to get that fixed after a few days. Still, we were well on track to completing well before the end of May. Unfortunately, a few days later, my friend just disappeared! I sent e-mails, phone messages, Skype messages, Facebook messages, and even contacted their family members. No dice. I heard absolutely nothing back for several days. Later on, I finally heard back. My friend had just suffered a serious breakup and had some depression associated with that.
If something happens that prevents you from working on a project, make sure to tell your coworkers about it so they know what’s happening. Make sure you have an emergency contact who can get ahold of your employer and team members if some unforeseen disaster happens to you. Put a post-it on your desk or something. I don’t know what would have happened if I had been suddenly hospitalized during the project – who would have let my employer know? You owe it to your friends and coworkers and clients to maintain a high level of professionalism in your work.
3. I Moved, Too
This project seemed destined for disaster. The initial plan was to complete the translation project in four weeks. That’s because at the end of May, I would be moving to another state to start a brand new full-time job! I had it all planned out: since my future income was secure, I could quit one of my part-time jobs to commit more time to the translation while still keeping my teaching position at the college (the semester wasn’t over yet). Unfortunately, the project went WAY past the deadline, and I was not able to complete the translation before my move, which included a flight out to the city to file my hiring paperwork and look for an apartment. I felt I could complete the translation by the end of April and be on my merry way! Remember, I was very enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, we had to get more time on the project. Moving is stressful in and of itself, but leaving your home of ten years and friends and family to start a new life halfway across the country was now coupled with completing a massive translation project. In fact, the first day of moving was the worst day of my life since I had to say goodbye to everyone, then came down with the flu two states over (I still hate Kansas City for that reason), and got stuck in one of the worst rainstorms I had ever seen while the car started leaking through the roof rack that had been installed the other day. I can kind of chuckle at this today, but it was absolute hell at the time. Sadly, I did not maintain good communication with my new supervisor to appraise them of the situation – see the above advice to realize how I didn’t follow it – although they oddly never sent me messages back…
Shit can happen that is beyond your control during any project. Make backup plans. Don’t give up. Don’t panic. And maintain communication.
4. Spreadsheets Are Awesome, but They Also Suck
I’ve already discussed my woes about the slow computer and Open Office, but I want to point to one of the biggest obstacles I have with game translation, and that is the spreadsheet itself. The spreadsheet is a powerful tool for putting the original text, its translation, and your notes side-by-side, along with color-coding and other tools to help you identify problems with the text. I continue to use spreadsheets for my own translation projects, simply because they are one of the most valuable tools you can have by placing original text, translation, and notes side-by-side, along with color coding. But it also completely robs the translator of context.
This is because a spreadsheet is essentially a text dump of the entire game’s script, often in nonlinear format. When a player sees the text, they are shown a text box with the name of the speaker and have the context of all previous conversations. When a translator sees the text, they don’t see the name or even the order in which the story is presented. They end up with something like this:
- Take a film script in a foreign language.
- Cut out the names and stage directions for all the characters, leaving just the raw dialogue.
- Now cut the scenes up into blocks.
- Shuffle the blocks in a random order.
- Stick it in a spreadsheet.
- You now have an idea of what a game translator looks at.
This is huge problem for someone who is used to seeing the final translation inside the game itself. With a previous project I had worked on, a fan translation, the whole team played the game back each time there was a series of edits conducted in order to make sure the text sounded and looked perfect. Unfortunately, with a professional project, the translator rarely has this luxury, which is often reserved for the playtesters. Since the translation was already way behind schedule, I can only surmise the playtesters didn’t have enough time to properly look at all the text we came up with, and thus fix any problems that emerged.
I prefer to have complete control of the text from start to finish, so transitioning to this tool with little experience beforehand was a big problem for me.
This underscores the importance of having the game, walkthrough videos, and save files available. When you’re given these tools, use the hell out of them. If you suck at playing games (kind of like me), use the walkthroughs even more. Watch the whole thing, start to finish. Make bookmarks of where all the text is in the video so you can have that valuable context. And if you’ve never used a tool before, ask for advice. With translation, context is everything, so add the most of it that you can to that spreadsheet.
5. I Did Not Quite Have The Skills for This Project
Whenever you see a bad translation, it’s best not to immediately assume the translators were unskilled idiots. There are dozens of other problems that can occur. The translator could have a major life-changing event (that happened above to nearly everyone involved in the project). The translator may not have been given enough time (we were granted an extension, so that was not the case here). The translator may also not have received good support for context (they gave me a game, and I found walkthroughs). All of these things can be factors, but the final one is, of course, the translator’s skill.
As should be abundantly clear from looking at all the above examples, the final nail in the coffin of this game was I simply did not have the translation skills or experience necessary for a project of this scope. I do not have a degree in Japanese. While I can use the hell out of dictionary tools and have fairly good reading abilities, I cannot speak Japanese on a conversational level. This means I often get stumped with odd sentence structures or complex terms.
Thankfully, there are some excellent tools available.
- Japanese electronic dictionaries. You can get free ones on your phone or computer (I use Tagaini Jisho on PC, JED on iOS, and of course there’s always Jim Breen’s amazing EDICT/JMDICT if you have Internet access. Know how to use character search and kanji position search. There’s honestly no need to use a print dictionary anymore with such powerful tools at your disposal.
- eow.alc.co.jp – This online translation dictionary has been invaluable. Input your Japanese text to find places where your word or words have been used, along with the translations other people came up with. That will help you get an idea of how a word is used in everyday speech.
- Weblio – A translation dictionary is really only useful to a certain extent since it gives you a word-for-word substitution, not a full definition. Many words have multiple definitions. How the word is used in context may be Definition 3, but the translation dictionary gives you the English equivalent of Definition 1. Look at the Japanese definition to be doubly sure.
- Google Search – If you find a noun or phrase you’re unfamiliar with, Google the hell out of it! Often you will see a photograph of the object the word represents or find a place where it is used in context. Heck, you may even pull up some Weblio and Wikipedia hits. Use them to your advantage.
One last note: Google Translate should only be used with EXTREME CAUTION. I’ve seen students and hobbyist translators who will just dump their native text into Google Translate and use whatever is spit out as their submitted work. This is how disasters are made. In fact, many of you probably cringed at the mere mention of Google Translate. I see it as a tool, and like any tool, it must be used intelligently. Google Translate should NEVER be used to move from a native speaker’s language to the target language. It is useful mostly for letting you easily stumble through long passages to get the gist of context. It should NEVER be relied on solely for translation work.
So what do you do in a situation like this? Obviously, you should get assistance, even though this means taking a chunk out of your commission. But what you gain is experience. You need to present a good project within deadline, not a crappy project that’s late. This assistance I feel goes both ways.
If a translator does not have a lot of experience, but has strong skills in other areas (such as writing), they will need more support to become better at their job. Just because a tool is not refined does not mean it should be thrown away. It should instead be sharpened with the help of a more experienced craftsman. In short, rookie translators with help from mentors will grow to become good translators who can in turn teach others. My supervisor was like that, and I am eternally grateful for his help.
Likewise, if you are new to the game of translation, make sure you have good contacts who are better than you. If you find yourself getting in over your head, call on these people for help – and NOT at the last minute. And, of course, keep studying, keep practicing, and keep understanding your tools.
I hope it has been informative, as it highlights not only problems that can occur with any translation project but also common rookie mistakes to avoid.
As a translator, be aware of how progress is going. Make regular updates with your coworkers and supervisors on the project and express any concerns you see as they emerge – don’t wait for them to grow into giant beasts! Learn as much about the game you are translating as you can. Watch all the walkthroughs, play the game as much as possible, and remember context, context, context!! Chances are you will never see your work in-game until it hits the shelves, by which time it’s too late to change anything.
As a supervisor, make sure you have regular communication. Analyze your translator’s work and give them feedback on how to improve even further. Five minutes of training can work wonders.
Unfortunately, although I can put this game on my resume, I do not feel I can morally request letters of recommendation from anyone involved. I still maintain occasional contact with my first supervisor and my collaborator, but I have not worked on any projects with either of them since. With my supervisor, this is because I am embarrassed and feel I let him down.
I am also sorry to all the players whose experience was affected by the shoddy work, especially after reading there were some game breaking bugs. I don’t know what the company did with the translation after it was sent out, if they had anyone playtest the game or if any of the submitted text was altered. A lot of these problems are context-related, and I am sure I would have immediately corrected had I seen them in the game. However, I don’t think many translators have that luxury, and so must instead imagine what it will look like. Unfortunately, the result here was essentially a train wreck. Again, I can only speak from my end and from what I encountered and not from my coworkers or anyone else involved in the project.
After the project was completed, I committed myself to working full-time teaching while translating on the side as a hobby. I occasionally do game translation work for a friend in Tokyo, but I have not taken new contract work. I continue to use spreadsheets for my own translation projects – articles, manga, and videos – where I have immediate and full context available. The other people involved in the project are still working in game translation.
I hope this postmortem helps you to get a greater understanding of how the translation process works, some of the tools used, and why translations can end up as screwy as they do sometimes. Hopefully recounting this experience will help reduce these incidents.
That was a neat inside look at a small-scale translation project. It’s actually not too different from some of my own early experiences – I think it’s a lot like any job, where there’s going to be an adjustment period full of goof-ups. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in my career it’s that when you’re struggling during a project and almost ready to give up, keep going – you’ll find that your skill has greatly leveled up by the time you’re done. Also, almost every translator I know looks back at their early work and grimaces, so I think this is a fairly normal experience in that regard too. So, for anyone else in this sort of situation, try not to be too hard on yourself.
I think it’d be fun to share more inside stories like this in future articles, so if you’re in translation or localization and have some interesting stories to share, let me know!